Good News for the Book Business: Print sales on the rise, independent bookstores going strong

Alexandra Alter reports for the New York Times that a surprising thing has happened in the book business over the last couple of years (although perhaps not so surprising to longtime readers and booksellers): the sharp rise in ebook sales generated by early Kindle excitement has leveled off, and readers are returning to print.

Alter interviewed Steve Bercu, owner of BookPeople in Austin, TX, who credits his store’s profitable 2015, in part, to

the stabilization of print and new practices in the publishing industry, such as Penguin Random House’s so-called rapid replenishment program to restock books quickly…Penguin Random House has invested nearly $100 million in expanding and updating its warehouses and speeding up distribution of its books.

I’m thrilled that my longtime publisher is taking the lead on this. People say, “Oh, the Big 5 publishers never change,” and I constantly hear complaints that the New York publishing houses have their heads in the sand. But it sounds as though things are changing, and the publishers are finding ways to make print books more appealing–which is good for readers, good for authors, good for bookstores, and good for communities.

I’m fortunate to live in the Bay Area, home of dozens of thriving independent bookstores. At Kepler’s 60th anniversary party last week, lines were out the door. Green Apple, a mainstay of the Richmond district in San Francisco, opened a new branch on the other side of Golden Gate Park a couple of years ago, and it’s thriving. So too are Books Inc., The Booksmith, and many other bookstores in San Francisco, Marin, the East Bay, and Silicon Valley. Southern California has some fantastic indies too. On my Golden State book tour last year, I had the chance to read at Warwick’s, an amazing independent bookstore with a strong community following in LaJolla, as well as LA’s Vroman’s. And in the past, I’ve had the pleasure of reading at West Hollywood’s famous neighborhood store, Book Soup.

And it’s not just the Golden State where independent bookstores are going strong. The article notes: “The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations five years ago.”

I’m sure there are plenty of reasons behind the shift, but I have an inkling that one contributing factor may be a more even-keeled approach to e-book pricing. When publishers have control over the price of e-books, it levels the playing field for print books and, as a result, for brick and mortar stores. My books often cost the same in paperback as they do in e-book format. As a reader, given a choice between print and digital when the cost is the same, I’ll always choose print. E-books may still be very appealing in contrast to hardcovers, which often cost twice as much, but once a book comes out in paperback, the e-book has no real advantage unless you’re a traveler who doesn’t want the weight of books in your luggage or a minimalist who doesn’t want the bulk of books in your living space.

And while the chains may have trouble competing with Amazon, local independent bookstores offer readers, authors, and communities something that Amazon never can. I think that’s why they do so well. Go into Books Inc. Burlingame during holiday season, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc., and you’ll see people lining up to have their purchases gift-wrapped. On any afternoon after school, you’ll find kids reading on the bench seat in the children’s section. Earl, the manager, and all of the employees, will put just the right book in your hand if you’re not sure what your looking for.

Amazon can’t give you that experience, but neither can Barnes and Noble–which may be why smaller bookstores seem to be faring better than the chains. Nor can they mimic the experience of walking into Kepler’s and being greeted by the co-owner, Praveen Madden, who is always excited about something he’s reading and will tell you why. Nor can it rival, for an author, the joy of finding all of my books lined up, signed, on a shelf at Green Apple, with handwritten shelf talkers. (Below, the store’s owners: Kevin Hunsager, Kevin Ryan, and Pete Mulvihill).

Two Kevins & a Pete at Green Apple Books, image courtesy Green AppleGolden State book launch at Green Apple

That’s why I bristle at the idea that independent bookstores are quaint entities we need to “save.” They are vital, and they are strong businesses with sound business models: small spaces filled with the kind of books people want to read, staffed by avid readers who also happen to be great salespeople. Independent bookstores tend to be located in community centers. Books Inc., for example, has eight small but incredibly well-stocked and well-curated stores scattered throughout the Bay Area, all located in the middle of communities that have a lot of readers. Green Apple is in the heart of the inner Richmond, near neighborhood markets and restaurants. The Booksmith is in the heart of Haight Street, a neighborhood with constant foot traffic. And what serious reader in San Francisco can resist a trip to City Lights in North Beach? The fact is, ordering books from Amazon is no more convenient than purchasing from my neighborhood store, which is a five-minute drive from my house, gives me “same-day service” without the prime membership price tag, and pumps money back into my community.

I’ve got nothing against e-books, really. But, as my 10-year-old, child of digital everything, consumer of all things electronic except electronic books, says, “I like real books a million times better.”

Read Alter’s article, “The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip and Print is Far From Dead.”

photo of Books Inc. courtesy of Yelp

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5 Great Novels to Read This Fall

The RoomThe Room by Jonas Karlsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A delightfully strange novel that brings to mind Kafka and Hrabal. When a narcissistic office worker named Bjorn discovers a secret room, his co-workers, who do not believe the room exists, ostracize him. While in the room, however, Bjorn does his best work, making himself indispensable to the company. The co-workers who despise him come to resentfully rely on him to keep their entire department relevant. A slim, tricky, maddeningly amusing novel that leaves many questions unanswered.

There Must Be Some Mistake: A NovelThere Must Be Some Mistake: A Novel by Frederick Barthelme
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Forgetful Bay reminds me a lot of the Gulf Coast, where I grew up. No one does Gulf Coast torpor–the heat and humidity and wrenching boredom of it–quite like Barthelme. Wallace Webster lives a quiet life, observing the strange goings-on and frequent deaths in this backwater community with a sharp eye and quick wit. I was reminded of the short story “The School,” by Barthelme’s brother Donald, in which a series of small animals dies, leaving a group of innocent children wondering, “Is death that which gives meaning to life?” As with “The School,” the crimes that befall Forgetful Bay become increasingly difficult to ignore.

Barthelme draws Webster’s relationships with the various women in his life–daughter, co-worker, and occasional lover–with tenderness and complexity. A wonderful novel by one of my favorite writers, whose work proves, again and again, that you don’t need a lot of pages to cover a whole lot of emotional ground.

Marta Oulie: A Novel of BetrayalMarta Oulie: A Novel of Betrayal by Sigrid Undset
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The 1907 novel by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1928, still holds up to scrutiny today. It is now, as it was then, a very modern novel. The subject–the interior life of a young married woman who desperately longs for a more passionate life–made waves in Norway upon its publication and has been translated for the first time into English. A beautifully written, deeply affecting journey into the mind of a woman struggling against convention.

Academy GirlsAcademy Girls by Nora Carroll
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When single mom Jane Milton, recently divorced, returns as a teacher to the stuffy boarding school where she spent her formative years, she is bombarded by sinister memories and shadowed by a former classmate. Moving back and forth between Milton’s senior year and her current life as a teacher, Academy Girls is a compelling mystery about how the crimes of the past echo into the future.

The New NeighborThe New Neighbor by Leah Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Delightfully creepy and quietly terrifying.

View all my reviews

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MFA Students in Creative Writing: Why You Should Never Make Your MFA Thesis Available Online

As an MFA candidate, you may think that the most important thing for you as a writer is “being read.” As someone who went down the MFA road in the nineties, and whose thesis formed the basis of my first book, I can tell you that longterm ownership of your creative work is far more important than the immediate satisfaction of being read.

It has come to my attention that some university libraries are requiring graduate students to make their theses available remotely “for educational purposes.” If your university has requested this, fight back and say no. The very purpose of MFA programs in creative writing is to prepare writers for a career in writing. During the course of the program, MFA candidates are expected to produce a “publishable book.” The moment you publish that book online for the benefit of your university library, you have taken away the motive for your future readers to purchase the book. Good luck finding representation with a literary agent, or sending out your book to publishers, or to first-book contests that seek “an unpublished work.”

If you’re an MFA student whose university has pressured you to make your book-length thesis available online, talk to your department head. Professors should be fighting on behalf of their students. I also encourage you to visit the Authors Guild for more information about copyright protection.

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Ocean Beach, San Francisco

5 Simple Everyday Habits to Increase Happiness

While no one can be happy every minute of every day, and while sadness has an important place in our emotional lives, we can cultivate happiness by creating a few simple habits and practicing them every day.

1. Make the beds every morning.

It’s difficult to maintain order in a house, especially if you have little ones. Even without children, the piles of papers, books, CDs, gadgetry, sports equipment, laundry–you name it–can be overwhelming. Which is why I make the beds every morning. It takes five minutes to make a bed, it gives you a small sense of accomplishment early in the day, and every time you walk into the bedroom, you are met with a small island of calm in the midst of the chaos. I prefer soft white bedding with pillowcases in a bright color or inviting pattern–all the more zen.

2. Read every evening.

I love reading alone, and I try to do it for a few minutes every evening while my husband and son are spending time together. But one of the great things about reading before bed is that it’s an easy ritual that can also be shared with children. When my son was small, after a long day I loved sitting in the bed with my son, the bed piled with books he had chosen. By the time we turned the last page on the last book, he’d be ready to have a glass of milk and go to bed. These days, he prefers to read to himself, but we still often read side by side in the evenings. There are so many things to distract from time spent with family, so many time constraints that can lead to stress and arguments; reading with my son is a way for us to be close to one another in an utterly contented, quiet way. It’s also when some of our best conversations happen, and when he asks some of his most endearing and surprising questions. As parents, most of us always feel that, in some way, we’re coming up short. But I feel happy knowing that my son loves reading, and that this is a pleasure he will likely carry with him through his life.

3. Wear something that makes you feel good.

It can be a pair of shoes, a favorite scarf, a beloved jacket from college–it really doesn’t matter. Just choose something that makes you feel good–better yet if it has some sentimental value. Even if your clothes feel a bit tight today and the lines around your eyes came as something as a shock in the mirror this morning, wearing one beloved item that you know looks good on you can give you confidence. I love to wear a gold chain with an emerald that my husband gave me for our fifth wedding anniversary; every time my fingers absently find the emerald, I remember the choice my husband and I made more than a decade ago to spend our lives together, and it makes me feel calm and happy. What’s your emerald necklace?

4. Say something kind to someone you love.

It’s easy to be polite to strangers. We all know to say please and thank you in public, to smile and open doors for others, to ask, “How are you?” Being nice is ingrained in American life; the balance of friendliness and formal politeness varies, of course, depending on region, upbringing, and personal style. But in the rush of daily activity, it’s easy to forget to extend the same courtesies to the people we love, the people we see each morning when we wake up and each night before we go to bed, the people with whom we share meals and bills and responsibility. My husband and I always take time for a kiss and a hug and a kind word in the morning before he leaves for work (it sounds very 1950s, I know, but as I work from home, and he wears a suit, I do send him off every morning, something like June Cleaver). I feel grateful to him for going to work week after week, year after year; and he feels grateful to me for packing lunches and getting our son dressed and getting him to school (and working); and we both like each other very much. If he looks good in that shirt, I tell him. If he made a particularly amazing batch of chocolate chip cookies (which he does pretty often), I let him know I appreciate it. He does the same for me, numerous times a day, in numerous different ways.

We both do the same for our son. Think of a typical day–how many times do you end up correcting your children, telling them to do this or don’t do that, explaining that if they don’t brush their teeth, the teeth will eventually fall out? It’s not bad parenting–it’s just the way of the world–there are a lot of things we have to tell our children. But how many times do you say, “That’s such a great idea,” or, “I love how imaginative you are,” or, “I had so much fun with you today,” or, my favorite, “You’re a great kid.” They need to hear it, and it’s easy to say. So, each day before you part with your family members in the morning, and again before you go to bed at night, be sure to say something kind. It will make them happy.

5. Go outside and breathe.

I need not wax lengthy or this one. Hot or cold, rain or shine, remember to look at a tree or a bird or some rocks or some wildflowers. The only time I found it hard to go outside and breathe was Beijing, circa 1998, because breathing the city air was like breathing soot. So I would take a cab to the Forbidden City, find a quiet spot, and do my sitting and breathing there. Now that it’s summer in Northern California, we have our meals outside as often as possible–on the deck, or down in the yard in a little tee-pee my sister made for my son. I love to step outside first thing it the morning, when the air is cool. There’s a sense of promise to the morning hours, a sense of the world waking up which we can easily forget if we run from house to car to work, without spending a moment in the outside world. My son likes to go down to the back yard (we live over a canyon, and getting to the back yard is something of a trek) and check to see if Rocky the Fast, his favorite chameleon, is scuttling around on the bottom step. It’s good to be reminded of a world that is bigger than we are, and creatures that are smaller than we are. Perspective breeds happiness.

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The failure of the “stranger danger” rule – Adrian Gonzalez, suspect in Madyson Middleton’s death was “a nice kid”

Update, July 29, 12:54 p.m. PST : The 15-year-old suspect accused of sexually assaulting and and killing Madyson Middleton has been identified as Adrian Jerry Gonzalez. Gonzalez will be charged as an adult. The charges include “one count of murder that includes special circumstances of lying in wait, kidnap and sexual assault, and other counts related to sexual offenses and kidnapping,” according to NBC Bay Area.

One of the main pieces of advice parents give children from a very early age is “Don’t talk to strangers.” We also tell them more specific things, like, “If a stranger asks you to help him find his puppy, run away,” or, “If a stranger picks you up, yell and scream.” The operative word, so often, is stranger, because it’s very clear and obvious to parents than any stranger who tries to lure your child away should be avoided at all costs.

It’s more difficult to explain to a child that even people you know and trust can pose a threat. In fact, it’s something many parents don’t say, because the idea is so reprehensible. We don’t want to believe that the nice kid next door or the nice check-out guy or the friendly camp counselor could be a predator. And, of course, we want our children to be happy, and we don’t want them to live in fear that someone they know might hurt them. But the arrest today of a suspect in Madyson Middleton’s death had nothing to do with strangers, or with any of the transients and drug addicts who are known to linger near the apartment complex where Maddy went missing.  The suspect, a 15 year old yo-yo enthusiast whom Madyson Middleton knew and, according to police, probably trusted, allegedly lured Maddy into his apartment, where he sexually assaulted and strangled her. The suspect’s identity is a stark reminder that danger to children doesn’t usually come from strangers. While those cases do of course exist, often with terrifying outcomes–as in the cases of Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, and Michaela Joy Garecht–more often, when children are abducted, assaulted, or killed, the perpetrator is a friend or acquaintance.

Arrest of teenaged suspect in the murder of Madyson Middleton. Photo via KSBW News

The suspect lives in Madyson’s apartment complex, the Tannery Arts Center. The suspect’s own instagram feed is populated with photos and videos of him yo-yoing, joking around and skateboarding with his friends (including girls his own age), and a variety of nature and urban shots taken around Santa Cruz and Northern California. All in all, he seems like “a regular kid,” just as he was described in news articles by several friends and neighbors, including Kirby Scudder, a resident of the Arts Center who was dating the victim’s mother, Laura Jordan.

While his posts are sometimes melancholic, there is nothing in them that seems out of the ordinary for a teenager. Two days ago, he posted a video himself playing the piano, with the words, “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had,” lyrics from the song Mad World.) Lyrics which wouldn’t be alarming, were it not for the fact that he posted them on Sunday, the day that Madyson was murdered. According to SFGate, who cites an unnamed source, “the boy told police that he had been contemplating suicide and that he had killed the girl to see how people would react.” The same source “said surveillance video showed the teenager placing Madyson’s body into the bin several minutes before her mother, Laura Jordan, called police at 6:08 p.m. Sunday.”

Even though he seemed like “a regular kid,” for adults paying attention, there might have been warning signs, such as this caption on an ordinary Instagram selfie (below) taken on a city street: “Wears all black to try and look powerful and hide the crippling anxiety. Towards the future and the constant worry that i’ll never find someone who loves me.”

Adrian Gonzalez

Gonzalez also recently posted a photo of Nid Vizzini’s semi-autobiographical YA book, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” opened to Chapter 15. (Although the book’s title isn’t visible, a search of the opening lines of text led to an excerpt from Chapter 15 of It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

Adrian Gonzalez reading - It's Kind of a Funny Story

Vizzini committed suicide in 2013. ) The book is about a teen’s battle with depression. According to Today,

“It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” recounts how a 15-year-old landed in a mental facility after repeatedly attempting suicide.

In light of the horrific assault on Maddy, one has to wonder if Gonzalez was expecting his Instagram account to be studied after his arrest, and if he wanted to create a narrative about his depression as a kind of defense or rationalization of the act he was going to commit. Because, in the end, of course, he didn’t choose suicide. Instead, he chose to take the life of an 8-year-old girl. And he didn’t seem to attempt to evade arrest. He hid the body in his own apartment complex, and he hung around the dumpster while police were searching, repeatedly asking about the status of the search. Is it possible that he wanted to be caught? Part of the text that the book was open to in the Instagram photo reads as follows:

I’m young, but I’m already screwing up my life. I’m smart but not enough—just smart enough to have problems. Not smart enough to get good grades. Not smart enough to have a girlfriend. Girls think I’m weird. I don’t like to spend money. Every time I spend it, I feel as if I’m being raped.

In another photograph posted on Instagram just one week before Maddy’s murder, by an artist who was doing a demonstration for children at the center, the suspect poses for a demo on how to draw caricatures. One can’t help but wonder if Maddy was among the children watching the demonstration that day. (Note: I found this photo by doing an instagram search for Tannery Arts Center, and the boy in the photo looks very much like Instagram user AwkwardYoYoer. No one is identified in the photo, so while it looks like a clear match to me, I can’t be 100% certain).

While cases that garner the most media attention tend to be stranger abductions, and while those do, of course, happen, the vast majority of crimes against children are committed by people they know. In this case, telling Madison to stay away from the transients who lurk in the alley behind the Tannery Arts Center would have done no good. And while the mother was quickly called into question for not being with her at the time of her disappearance, and her judgment might certainly be lacking, it turns out that keeping a closer eye on the child may not have saved her in this case. Of course, if she were never alone, no one could have taken her. But this was a child who, according to police, willing went into the suspect’s apartment, where he raped and murdered her. Given the nature of the apartment complex and the sense of “community” that was apparently shared by many of the residents, if the suspect was intent on harming a child, he probably would have done so sooner or later. Tannery Arts Center, from the website and the photos and the ordinary instagram feeds of its ordinary residents, looks like a happy place. A place where kids paint and dance and skateboard and hang out together. A place where you know your neighbors. A place where, despite the seediness of the streets outside, a family can feel safe. In this photo from the center’s Instagram feed, you can see kids doing art. Other photos show folks dancing together, eating, having a good time, kids writing bad teenage poetry–just as teenagers are supposed to do. It looks pretty much idyllic.

A photo posted by Matt Bachtel (@doom_squirrel) on

So how do parents protect children from predators? What could have been done differently? A hard-and-fast rule, such as “NEVER go into anyone’s apartment without my permission,” might have helped. However, in a situation in which the child feels so comfortable, when the alleged perpetrator is a kid himself, someone she knows as a fun, nice kid who does yo-yo tricks, someone who is known and liked in her community–even that rule might have been disregarded by a child in a moment of weakness or forgetfulness.

Perhaps a buddy system could help. Even so, in a heartbreaking case like this, one thing we need to ask ourselves is how we are identifying troubled teens. How do we notice the ones who are capable of committing such a crime? What are the warning signs? If we can’t allow children to trust other, older kids in their own tight-knit community, how are we to make them feel safe?

Read the full reporting on the Madyson Middleton case in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

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